Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The (1921)

“And when the sun rises in a few hours the world will behold the Four Horsemen — enemies of mankind!”

Four HorsemenPoster

Synopsis:
An Argentinian cattle baron (Pomeroy Cannon) with two European son-in-laws — a Frenchman (Josef Swickard) and a German (Alan Hale) — favors his rakish French grandson Julio (Rudolph Valentino) over all others. Meanwhile, the arrival of World War I wreaks havoc on the family’s tenuous ties, as well as Julio’s love affair with the wife (Alice Terry) of an older attorney (John St. Polis).

Genres:

Review:
Based on a “mystical” novel by Spanish author Vicente Blasco-Ibanez, this epic silent film (directed by Rex Ingram) broke all box office records the year of its release (it was the first film to gross more than one million dollars), and became the sixth highest grossing silent film of all time. It’s widely known as the film that brought “Latin Lover” Rudolph Valentino (real name: Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina D’Antonguolla!!!) into the spotlight as a leading man, and his charisma is clearly evident — at one point, while in the midst of seducing a woman, he actually turns to the camera in a quick aside, as though to wink at the audience! His early, sultry tango scenes — not part of the original novel — are so sensual and evocative that they made the dance a hit craze for a while.

As far as the story goes, it’s a fairly standard overblown saga of forbidden romance, family feuds, and the inevitable tragedy of war — with Germans emerging as the definite baddies of the bunch (it was released, after all, just three years after the end of World War I, when sentiments were still raw). Meanwhile, the integration of a “mystical” element into the story — embodied by a wacky neighbor (Nigel De Brulier) who foretells the coming of the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse” (hence the film’s title) — is simply silly and heavy-handed. But Ingram has a fine directorial hand, framing his scenes carefully and adding unique visual touches — many of which are quite memorable (see stills below); and the “DeMille”-ian amounts of money spent on the production seem to have been put to good use, given Ingram’s ability to effectively present the devastation of war (see also stills below). Remade by Vincente Minnelli (!) in 1962, with Glenn Ford (!) starring as Julio.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rudolph Valentino as Julio
    Four Horsemen Valentino3
    Four Horsemen Valentino
  • A devastating portrait of war
    Four Horsemen Devastation1
    Four Horsemen Devastation2
  • Powerful imagery
    Four Horsemen Horses
    Four Horsemen Imagery
    Four Horsemen Imagery2

Must See?
Yes, for its historical importance. Listed in the back of Peary’s book as a film with Historical Relevance.

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One Response to “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The (1921)”

  1. First viewing.

    In spite of its place in cinema history, this isn’t a must – mainly because (as pointed out) “it’s a fairly standard overblown saga” which has a difficult time being saved by efforts to make it more than that. Yes, it has been competently directed and generally nicely produced but, as befits the overall production, the acting is rather standard as well. Since I know little of Valentino’s work, I had thought perhaps that this epic production might show him in a more impressive light – but he’s not called on to be much more than a screen ‘presence’. (It would be interesting to me if I were to come across a film of his which caused me to sit up and take real notice of him – but that remains to be seen. So far, I’m not swooning.)

    The “mystical” aspect of the film, in general, does seem a bit heavy (and is it really necessary, or is it there to add an element of ‘importance’?). I’m aware that the meaning of ‘apocalypse’ can include ‘widespread devastation’, but my understanding (at least) of the Book of Revelation is that it’s a prophecy of ultimate destruction – something apart from prior chaos. (I suppose the ‘wacky neighbor’ is actually meant to be Christ returning to Earth – note his behavior near the film’s end – but, again, all this tacked-on spirituality just appears out-of-place.)

    I would not doubt that – given the film’s massive popularity at the time – audiences felt they were seeing something truly special. In 1920, they probably were. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as though ‘Four Horsemen…’ has kept a voice that can speak outside its era.

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